Go home, America

It is a given problem in small-town America that the best and the brighest get out as soon as they can. They head for the city to make their future while their hometowns — rural America — decline.

The role of college professors, J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, notes in an op-ed in the New York Times today, is “to suck talent out of small towns and redistribute it to big cities.”

We are increasingly segregated economically, politically, and culturally.

So Vance has decided he wants to do something about it. He’s moving back home.

I’ve long worried whether I’ve become a part of this problem. For two years, I’d lived in Silicon Valley, surrounded by other highly educated transplants with seemingly perfect lives. It’s jarring to live in a world where every person feels his life will only get better when you came from a world where many rightfully believe that things have become worse. And I’ve suspected that this optimism blinds many in Silicon Valley to the real struggles in other parts of the country. So I decided to move home, to Ohio.

It wasn’t an easy choice. I scaled back my commitments to a job I love because of the relocation. My wife and I worry about the quality of local public schools, and whether she (a San Diego native) could stand the unpredictable weather.

But there were practical reasons to move: I’m founding an organization to combat Ohio’s opioid epidemic. We chose Columbus because I travel a lot, and I need to be centrally located in the state and close to an airport. And the truth is that not every motivation is rational: Part of me loves Ohio simply because it’s home.

I recently asked a friend, Ami Vitori Kimener, how she thought about her own return home. A Georgetown graduate, Ami left a successful career in Washington to start new businesses in Middletown, Ohio. Middletown is in some ways a classic Midwestern city: Once thriving, it was hit hard by the decline of the region’s manufacturing base in recent decades. But the town is showing early signs of revitalization, thanks in part to the efforts of those like Ami.

Talking with Ami, I realized that we often frame civic responsibility in terms of government taxes and transfer payments, so that our society’s least fortunate families are able to provide basic necessities. But this focus can miss something important: that what many communities need most is not just financial support, but talent and energy and committed citizens to build viable businesses and other civic institutions.

Vance notes that not every hometown can be saved, and not everyone has the opportunity to go back home and make a living or a difference.

“But those of us who are lucky enough to choose where we live would do well to ask ourselves, as part of that calculation, whether the choices we make for ourselves are necessarily the best for our home communities — and for the country,” he writes.

  • Will

    This is an interesting movement, going back to the communities you grew up in even if you have talent to live in the major economic powerhouses. Seems like a good way to mix ideas and have a better perspective of our country. Another piece of this equation we’re missing is offering the skills/talent to those who may be in a bad economic situations. Seems like a serious issue we rarely talk about.

  • Jerry

    It is “small town values” that are killing small town America. Innovators aren’t abandoning rural America. They are being driven out.

  • Tim

    I respect what he’s trying to do, but it’s not just about the state in which you live, but where in that state as well. Columbus is doing rather well, from what I understand, just like there’s a big difference between San Francisco and Stockton.

    I realize that he has logistical reasons for relocating there as opposed to, say, Youngstown, but he’s still moving to a place that already has a lot of people with education and resources.

    • It struck me that he’s not saying much that’s different than what Aaron J. Brown has been saying for years about the Iron Rangers who left.

    • Jerry

      I missed that he was moving to Columbus the first time I read the story. That is the 15th largest city in the country with a population of 850,000. That is twice the population of Minneapolis. Not exactly small town America.

  • RBHolb

    “Vance notes that not every hometown can be saved, and not everyone has the opportunity to go back home and make a living or a difference.”

    Which comments make the rest of his article that much less compelling.

    If you’re able to start a non-profit to fight opioid addiction, then it’s easy to talk about moving back to Columbus, Ohio, and preach about it as a good thing. The vast majority of American workers–at virtually every level of the economy–are not that mobile. We have to go or stay where the jobs are, not where we think it would be a good place to go.

    I applaud Mr. Vance’s move, and I think it’s great that someone of his intellect, talents, and earning powers would choose to do this. As much as we might prefer otherwise, following his example is not on most of our realistic agendas.

  • jon

    Small town I grew up in (called it self a village, though “suburb of chicago” is probably most accurate) is doing much better since we left.

    It helps that the mayor who was there in my childhood left office (and has since died).

    He was most notable for poisoning the town’s water (using a contaminated well to keep water prices down), fighting against funding the schools, and refusing to plow the streets of people who publicly opposed him. (mayor owned the trucking company that was contracted to plow the city…)

    Any empty lot with concrete waste and that was an eye sore was proposed to be turned into a garbage incinerator, and when the city voted that down on a referendum he insisted that lot not be cleaned up at any point, that lot is now a grassy field! (it’s a big improvement).

    I guess it’s true what they say, when you elect a supervillain as mayor you get pretty much exactly what you’d expect.

  • kcmarshall

    It would be interesting to get Vance and Richard Florida (“Rise of the Creative Class”) together to debate this issue. I think Florida would say that the brain drain is inevitable as high-paying creative jobs cluster in growing cities.

    I’m from small-town Kansas and wouldn’t go back to raise my family there. Kansas is an extreme example of Red state culture and government though.

  • Kassie

    Just going to be honest here, I can’t think of any circumstance that could get me to move back to my home town. Sorry folks, but Brooklyn Park just sucks.

  • Mike Worcester

    The sentiments expressed by Vance in his op-ed are laudable. I do miss my home town (pop. <900) some days, but then again, only to a point.

    If we look at the difficult economic straights of many rural communities (let's perhaps just stay in Minnesota for sake of argument), so many of them are suffering because they were based around natural resources — farming, lumbering, mining, etc. Those sectors have been hurting for not just years now, but decades.

    If we want people to return to those smaller communities, they need to be economically competitive, or as economically attractive as they can be, with their urban counterparts. But is that hard to do when natural resource macroeconomics are so stacked against them?

  • The problem with many small towns is that their reason to exist has disappeared. Mining towns dry up when the mines close, small agricultural service towns spaced 10 miles apart in the rural midwest wither away as farms consolidate and turn to high tech monoculture, towns that grew up around a river -a transportation advantage in 1850 – may now find themselves wishing for better internet, airline, and freeway connections. On a broader scale, global trends have, as Tom Friedman says, made the Earth “flat” as manufacturing, transportation, and communication services evolved to create vast changes in all kinds of manufacturing and population trends. None of this is going away, and the pace of change is even increasing. Young people will continue to leave backwaters and seek their fortunes in more promising places. After all, they are usually not burdened with many possessions or real estate and moving is not nearly so daunting. Those who remain are older, many of them retirees with homes and friends in the area. Those who moved away long ago are not likely to return in their retirement years, having become used to good medical care, cultural amenities, and the many other services more prosperous urban settings provide. And those of working age who remain – well, they are often the least educated and likely to end up as examples in Hillbilly Elegy. Eventually society will have to figure out a better way to treat people as stakeholders rather than as winners or losers in the crap shoot of finding a decent job – jobs will be going away as never before thanks to artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles, robotic manufacturing, and online shopping. That means there will never be enough jobs ever, and that will include what are now the more prosperous urban areas. Perhaps whatever we come up with – say, a guaranteed annual wage – will also help solve the small town dilemma.

    • Rob

      Love your comment; it should be the featured one for this post.

  • On second thought, don’t go home, America. It’s not there anymore.


  • lindblomeagles

    I’m not sure I can ride the sympathy train for all small town USA. Some towns, yes. But other towns, not so much. As a person of color, I’ve read, heard, and watched small towns BLOCK people from moving into them — people that are not white. After the Civil War, small American towns FORCED blacks to stop moving into them, from 1865 – 1970s. Last year, a GREAT EXAMPLE if there ever was one, small towns across America walked into their voting booths and pushed the lever for Donald Trump’s agenda — an agenda that EXPLICITLY said, “We’re removing Hispanics from the nation, and we’re going to make sure Muslims don’t come here too.” Bob just had an article in here this week about Steve King, the racist Iowa Congressman who was RE-elected with 61% of the vote. King made racist comments before, and yet, all the small towns in his Iowa district STILL went along with his “purification” rhetoric even though Hispanics WANTED to come to Iowa for jobs. Yes, small towns have lost a lot of their best and brightest talent. BUT, THEY COULD HAVE HAD A LOT OF BRIGHTER AND BETTER TALENT IF THEY LET PEOPLE OF COLOR MOVE INTO THEM. The sad fact is small towns have largely been their own, worst enemy. Keep diversity out! Pander to the ONE largest corporation or manufacturer in town. Buy up all the land and sell it to non-relatives at ridiculously ludicrous prices. And fight the state and federal government every time they come up with an idea. Maybe some of them need to go. Maybe when a large number of towns disappear, the remaining small towns will start to rethink their attitudes about outsiders.